M. T. Dremer studied graphic design at Muskegon Community College and has been using Adobe Photoshop for more than a decade.
One of the things fantasy authors end up doing (whether they intended it or not) is creating a physical map of the world they’ve created. It’s become somewhat of a staple for the genre, but in my mind, it’s an essential one. Since we’re dealing with worlds that don’t exist, a map is just another way to visually present it to your reader. But, before you start scribbling out a bunch of mountains and rivers, there are some geographical laws that you should probably think about.
Planets Are Round
It’s very easy to focus on one or two continents and then fill the rest with water. For your characters, the world is much bigger than it needs to be, but when it’s drawn on a piece of paper, it suddenly becomes very small. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to map out the equivalent of an entire planet, but it does mean you should give consideration to what might be on the other side. Maybe you imagine it as an ocean, or an undiscovered land mass. Maybe it even occupies legends among the people in your world. Conceptualizing this unseen land can even lead to later books when, suddenly, you need a new place for characters to come from (or go to).
But, don’t think you’re limited to the planet structure. I suggest it because it’s the easiest to visualize for you, and your reader. But there is probably no better example of ‘thinking outside the box’ than Terry Pratchett who decided to make his world a flat disc that balances on the back of four elephants standing on a giant space turtle. If you think that such an absurd concept is un-map-able, then just do a quick search for ‘the discworld’ and you’ll see some truly imaginative artist creations.
Even having a giant turtle on the other side of your world is enough to round it out and create potential storylines you might never have thought of.
Where It’s Hot and Where It’s Cold
There is a tendency, with fantasy worlds, to follow an invisible checklist. Do I have my desert? Do I have my frozen north? Do I have a swamp? Don’t worry about being cliché if you’ve done this, because these are real environments in the real world. Emulating them is not a bad thing. But you’ll have to give some thought about their placement in relation to each other in your fantasy world. It’s colder near the poles and hotter near the equator. Your fantasy world doesn’t have to mimic Earth perfectly, but there should be some semblance of order (whether magical or otherwise). Again, it’s a very quick and easy way to establish some sense of familiarity for your reader, which they will already be struggling with because this is the first time they’ve been introduced to your world.
The transition from one ecosystem to the next is also important. There isn’t a definitive line between a snowy place and a tropical place. There is all kinds of mixed weather in between. And, while it can seem tedious to map out these areas (particularly if they don’t take center stage in your novel), just remember how useful they might be in the future and how much more credible your map will look. This will also help with city placement later because settlements tend to avoid the harsher climates, but they can easily occupy the milder areas in between to give your character a place to rest, eat, and meet new companions.
As I said, the checklist of environments isn’t a bad thing, but you can get creative with how they integrate with your world. For example, a swamp might force roads to travel out of the way for safe passage. And, people who live in the swamp will act differently than people who live in the mountains. Some of this will be more obvious than others (like forest people versus mountain people). But, villagers who tell your protagonist that they ‘never go into that forest’ are a story in and of themselves.
Weathering Isn't the Same Everywhere
One of the mistakes I made when I first created my own fantasy map was putting a canyon right next to a giant lake. You can probably guess why this was a mistake if you have even a passing knowledge of water tables and erosion. And, the reason I made this mistake is because I was going over that invisible checklist I mentioned above. Had it not been a canyon, I might have gotten away with some other land form, but knowing how things erode in each type of environment will help you properly place landforms that are plot specific. The same is true of what is causing that weathering. A place that gets heavy rainfall will be more eroded than a place that is mostly dry (unless it has sand storms). This leads me to another error I made early on since I inadvertently directed a river to flow uphill. We may want to be creative with our maps, but that doesn’t mean we should reinvent how gravity works. Similarly, that water in that river should be coming from somewhere. The rain should be heavy in that area because of something. And that volcano spewing lava should probably be over some kind of hot spot or tectonic activity.
A lot of this might sound like you need some kind of degree in geology, but most of us know this stuff in passing, even if we don’t have all the names for them. The easiest way to check if it makes sense is to ask yourself if such a combination of land forms exists anywhere in the real world.
One of the easiest trump cards when building a fantasy world is magic. Someone might ask, “why is that canyon right next to that lake; it doesn’t make any sense.” To which you would reply “Magic.” While it’s a viable excuse in this particular genre, it can easily be abused. Your patchwork world shouldn’t be held together exclusively by magic, unless you created that concept from the get-go as part of the narrative. Your audience isn’t going to buy it if all of your topographical mistakes are explained away with magic. So, try to use it sparingly and deliberately. If something is off about your world, don’t use magic as an excuse not to fix it.
Having said that, magic is a great resource for creating landforms that can’t exist in the real world. Things like floating islands, portals and underworlds can all be made a part of your world with the help of magic. They too will need explanations, but that falls more into the realm of the creation myth and origin of magic than it does your map. So, it can be designated for a different time.
Towns and Cities
Once you have your landmasses mapped out, you can start placing your settlements. And, I do recommend doing it in this order. You can come up with your settlements before your landmasses, but it might be harder to fit them into the flow of things. But don’t panic if your cities came first. It is possible to integrate them or build around them.
As I said above, settlements tend to favor milder climates, so areas that aren’t too hot or cold will probably house your largest groups of population. Those people (or creatures) that do live in the harsher climates must reflect it, not just in what they look like and live in, but how they act. Settlements are also generally established near places of plentiful resources like rivers, lakes and crop land. The same thought should be given to ruins, which is another staple of fantasy novels. If there are ruins of a city somewhere, there was probably a good reason for it being there in the first place. Maybe a river used to run by it but it was re-routed. Maybe it used to be good hunting ground, but the animals were hunted to extinction. Obviously there are many other reasons a city might have fallen to ruin, but these are just considerations from a geographical perspective. And, once you have all these things in your head, they will influence your designs naturally, so don’t worry about having to write two chapters of exposition about the placement of that river.
Chosen Method of Illustration
By now you’ve probably already drawn some sketches of what your world looks like. But, at some point, you might want a nice version that could, conceivably, be put in the book. This is particularly true if you are self publishing and don’t have the money to commission an artist. If you have drawing talent, then I would recommend going that route as a nicely hand-drawn map would be a great addition to any fantasy novel. If you don’t draw so well, then consider taking a minimalist approach using a photo editing program like Photoshop, Gimp, or even MS Paint. The quickest, and easiest, way to do this is by building each component separately. For mine I created a mountain, a treetop, a house and a lake using just the paintbrush, eraser and dodge/burn tool in Photoshop. They might look kind of silly and basic in the example, but bear with me.
- The mountain kind of stands out like a shark’s tooth, but in a more detailed map one could create a gradient of the base color (in my case green) to make it look more like it’s rising up from the land. If working with a colorless map, really all one would need is to create a series of tooth-like shapes that are darker near the top and lighter at the edges, to suggest a similar gradient. Just be aware that, when duplicating mountains specifically, they can sometimes overlap in a funny way. A good rule of thumb is to copy in a downward motion so that the top of the mountain (not the bottom) is visible behind the ones above it.
- The tree I created, which looks kind of like a green potato, was made in such a way that no trunk was visible. I did this on purpose because most maps, fantasy or otherwise, do not depict tree trunks, instead opting to show a forest as one giant mass. Creating just the top of a tree, I made it easier on myself to duplicate it. However, drawing one giant blob will also work, if you know what the parameters of your forest are in advance.
- As for the settlements, you honestly don’t have to create any kind of picture since a lot of maps just use dots or stars to depict cities. You can create a detailed picture for castles and towns, but the bigger the map gets, the harder they will be to see and the more likely they are to look disproportionate in comparison to everything else. Even my little house is way too big to represent one structure. So, I decided to instead use it as a general representation, which is another option if you decide to use a universal settlement symbol rather than a dot or a star. Also, I don’t really recommend depicting roads as they can easily get confused with rivers and quickly make your map look like it’s covered with a spider web. Just remember, while you’re writing, that there are in fact roads there.
- Water is relatively self explanatory, whether it’s a lake, ocean or river. I like to make it darker than the color of the land, so it shows up better in black and white, and I also give it a darker shading around the edges (using the ‘inner glow’ blending option from Photoshop). And, while it can seem like larger bodies of water are ‘blank’ in comparison to everything else, don’t forget that you can add islands, mark off underwater cities or use it as a space to draw a decorative sea monster. Every little touch you add will help to convey the theme of your world and catch the reader’s eye.
After creating my basic shapes, I can now shrink and copy them as many times as I want, building a mountain range, forest, or large settlement. I specifically did it in color first because it’s harder to do it after-the-fact, but doing it in black and white isn’t a bad idea, especially if it’s printed inside a book that otherwise has no color. Once I had everything placed, I added a little bit of shading beneath each to give it some impact on its surroundings. For the first version of your map, I would recommend not using any kind of texture (like grass on the plains or waves on the water). It has a tendency to clutter everything and make text harder to read. Plus, if you do make a color version into black and white, it can muddle everything together. You can see in the first picture I added a bit of sepia tone, and the parchment-like texture was added after it was complete to give it more of a map-look. The most important thing is legibility; there is no point making a map if you and your reader can’t understand it.
Don’t Be Afraid to Rework and Expand
As I said earlier, I made quite a few mistakes on my first go-around. But one of the nice things about having a digital version of your map is that it’s fairly easy to fix or expand. After my initial drawings, my map eventually tripled in size thanks to what I had learned and where new stories wanted to go. Don’t think of your map as something that is unchangeable. Much like the many drafts of your novel, there are going to be numerous edits and re-writes and there is no reason why your map can’t also benefit from this added polishing. Plus, a well plotted map can even help you conceptualize and implement new story ideas you might never have thought of before.
Gadfly. on December 21, 2018:
The tiny figures featured on the map depicted the Lord and Lady themselves. Others included yeomen practicing archery, milk maids, merchants passing by and an offender with his feet clamped in the stocks.
Gadfly. on December 19, 2018:
Continued from previous posting. Thelonius the monk was a talented calligrapher in addition to sketching and various figures adorned his maps.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on December 15, 2018:
These are great ideas. Building a map is difficult, and it's very easy to fall into "the north is cold and the south is hot" trap since that's what we in the northern hemisphere are used to. I got lots of ideas reading your article. Thank you!
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on May 26, 2018:
Merrie we meet.
Regarding riverine locations on our phantasy map i'd briefly mention the Waterbabies. by Charle Kingsley.
the gargoyle on October 21, 2016:
Castle Killbragnant in the haunted hills where 'scare queen' Elvira reigns supreme over a myriad of nocturnal things that go romping in her shadowy realm. What other denizens of the unseen prevail?
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on May 10, 2016:
Contrary to my previous posts i'd like to depart from those phantasy realms and mention real places that exude gloom, eerie ness and where no animal will go at night. Even humans say there is something about that place that is spooky. This could be caves, abandoned settlements, sacred sites or former battle fields.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on March 15, 2016:
Prior to re visiting Faerie lore of Britain i had recollection of the 1947 stage and film adaptations of Brigadoon, a fabled Scottish village that only appears in the temporal realm for one day every 100 years !
M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on September 15, 2015:
Greensleeves Hubs - Great points! I actually find it difficult NOT to create a map when I'm writing a story. Even if I'm avoiding it on purpose, I still have sketches playing through my head, demanding me to put it on paper. I suppose there is a little cartographer in every fantasy writer. :) Thanks for the comment!
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 13, 2015:
I totally agree that creation of a map must be a good idea for any story set in a fantasy world.
First, it will make it easier for the author to plan events and avoid any inconsistencies (which dedicated followers of the book are sure to pick up on).
Second, if the map is printed then it gives a good visual understanding to the reader of the layout of various geographical features. It is harder for the reader to appreciate the orientation and relationship of mountains, marshes, plains, cities and villages if they just exist in the mind. A map makes it so much easier for the reader to make sense of the action.
Third, even in a fantasy novel, the reader can only suspend disbelief so far. Anything that can be normal and familiar and obedient to the laws of nature, should be. Keep the fantasy limited to that which is absolutely necessary.
Fourth, it's just such good fun! Creating an entire world of your own, is the nearest you can come to playing God.
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on February 16, 2015:
merrie we meet
I happen to spend much of my spare more enjoyable tyme in a 'phantasy' realm that is actually based on a reality. Metroland originated at the turn of the last century as a commercial enterprise involving the construction of a rail link to the northwest of Olde London towne and the subsequent development of suburbs along the routes. Described as not towne/not country but an ideal habitat for family and other entities. The portal to Metroland begins at London's Baker Street terminal close to Holmes and Watson's abode. On a map Metroland encompasses parts of three of the home counties although shire boundaries have altered since tymes of antiquity. Metroland was probably at it's halcyon period during the 1950s. There was a lot of war planning occurring during the 1940s conflict with secret activities by phantom agents of the crown or hush hush departments which may have been the basis of the 1960s T.V. cult series the Avengers continually foiling some fiendish plot or another. In any case Metroland proved ideal for filming locations as it typified England and in easy reach of Pinewood and Elstree studios lying on the peripherie of Metroland. Far from dystopia.
many blessings to all kindred spirits
M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on December 30, 2014:
limpet - There is definitely a wealth of fascinating places in our real world history/mythology to use as inspiration. Personally, I've always loved the idea of an underwater city or the concept of an underworld. They are places that we get to explore, as authors, that we wouldn't see in our real lives. Thank you for the comment!
Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 30, 2014:
The scientific paleoetologists came up with a theoretical map of the world when the continents were apparently locked in. The northern hemisphere dubbed Laurentia and the southern, Gondwanaland. Alas these were in the primeval era and the only creatures predominantly reptiles descending down to moss and lichens. I being fascinated by mythical lands redrew the atlas of the world to it's legendary form, for example Sri Lanka becoming Serendip, China Cathay and the lost kingdom of Ophir beyond the mountains of the moon. Closer to home, eastern Europe has been referred to by authors as Ruritania/Ruthenia, Scandinavia and the Scottish lowlands as Elfhame. The west country of England as a fictional Wessex where the names of major townes are altered and even in antiquity Avalon and the offshore sunken land of Lyonnesse. Berkshire closer to olde London towne is no stranger to authors allocating whimsical names to real places. In dystopic novels the place names reflect a maudlin or sinister connotation. Gynarchic and feminist literature features amazonian or virago type names. I've mentioned my favourite imaginary lands on another website perhaps too numerous to list however the first beginning with A for Atlantis.
M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on September 02, 2014:
robertzimmerman2 - When writing inspiration strikes, it's very easy to put a lot of world building on the back burner. Which isn't the end of the world. However, it does make it more likely to hit those invisible walls where there is missing content. Hopefully the suggestions I have are useful to people who start before and after the narrative has already begun. Thank you for the comment!
CabrielleRudisill - Glad I could help! When it comes to hand-drawing stuff I'm not satisfied with anything I produce, so it's nice to have digital art programs as an option. 3D rendering programs (like Bryce) can also be used and, if making it from scratch in Photoshop, real pictures of trees and mountains can be used as reference shapes. (Tracing something with the pen tool not only simplifies it, but it makes it resizable without losing quality). Thanks for the comment!
Cabrielle Rudisill from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on September 01, 2014:
I have been looking for a way to create maps for my novel, thanks!
robertzimmerman2 on August 31, 2014:
Interesting article! I bet many authors fail to envision the worlds they create in their stories.
M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on August 30, 2014:
Cheeky Kid - I'm glad I could help your creative process. Thanks for the comment! :)
Cheeky Kid from Milky Way on August 30, 2014:
I've always wanted to create my own fantasy world. And this just gave me lots of wonderful ideas. hehe.
M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on August 27, 2014:
MizBejabbers - There is definitely a tendency to world-build as you go, which is something I did when I was first writing my novel. While it's possible to do it this way, I found it to be incredibly limiting. I can't count how many times I hit an invisible wall, while writing, that would force me to stop and build more areas. So, hopefully, guides like this can help other writers avoid those same walls. Thanks for the comment!
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on August 27, 2014:
I like your ideas. Maps definitely add something to fantasy worlds. When I'm reading a series, a lot of the time, the first book or two doesn't have a map. Then after I have the world formed in my mind, here will be a book with a map, and it isn't at all what I've imagined. I hate that! I'll remember your lessons if I ever write a fantasy. Thanks. Voted up++